Composer and writer discovers a bold new world at sea for Galway 2020 project

Aerial Sparks Ailís Ní Ríain on board the RV Celtic Explorer for the SeaRover 3 ROV Survey during Aug 2019. Photographer Ailís Ní Ríain.Ailís Ní Ríain, a contemporary classical composer and writer, spent three weeks at sea this August on board the Marine Institute’s RV Celtic Explorer, an experience she describes as ‘unique on every level: physically, spiritually, emotionally, mentally.’ The residency forms part of Aerial /Sparks, an interdisciplinary art project created by artist Louise Manifold for the Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture programme, in collaboration with the Marine Institute. Ailís is one of a number of participating artists who have been invited to spend time at sea on board the marine research vessel as part of Aerial/Sparks, an interdisciplinary art project exploring radio connectivity and its relationship to ocean space.

The ‘boldness of the idea’ resonated with Ailís when she accepted the invitation to take part in Aerial / Sparks, one of seven European artists joining marine research expeditions over a three-year period, “I loved the fact that I couldn’t really renegotiate with it in any way. You need to go to sea and you need to be completely in that situation. You’re signing up for something that you can’t know in advance and that doesn’t often come up for me.”Aerial Sparks Ailís Ní Ríain on board the RV Celtic Explorer for the SeaRover 3 ROV Survey during Aug 2019. Photographer Ailís Ní Ríain.

The SeaRover 3 ROV Survey is the final expedition on a three-year programme investigating the extent and distribution of coral reef habitats in offshore Ireland. Led by the Marine Institute and INFOMAR, the national seabed mapping programme, the SeaRover project was designed to protect and monitor marine biodiversity and to promote good fishing practice, with close to 350km of seabed surveyed along Ireland’s continental margin since 2017 in order to contribute to our assessment of vulnerable reef habitats in Ireland’s marine territory.

Having never been to sea before in any capacity, Ailís needed to figure out quickly the practicalities of ship-life and the roles of everybody on board. As she acknowledges, “‘People who work in that environment all the time won’t know what you don’t know.” Ailís’s nature is to ask a lot of questions and she saw her own role as one of observation and enquiry. She felt the three weeks on board were crucial in gaining an understanding of people’s responsibilities and backgrounds, “For me, it was about every single person on that ship and what they did. So I made it my business to have more than one conversation with every crew member. And if that meant getting up at night time to work their shifts with them and have the conversations at 3am I would do that.”

Previous experience of creating music installations for historic and unusual places (a decommissioned lighthouse, a K6 red British telephone box, a Grade I listed castle keep amongst others) developed Ailís’s interest in research-intensive projects with a broad range of outcomes: ‘I think that background has stood to me on this because I know how to ask questions and to listen and to distil all of that over time into something that might actually communicate to an audience about the experience in terms that are rich artistically and culturally.’

Learning about the work of both the crew and the scientists has led Ailís to carefully consider what she will draw from her experiences in creating a new work, “I see how important it is that this research is done. One of the scientists mentioned that a parasite on one of the corals is being used in tests for cancer treatments. So we’re not just looking at colourful things on the sea bed. The point is we don’t know what is there, we don’t know what benefit it can be to us. I want to be respectful in my approach having seen what it takes to do this work.”

Ailís kept a daily diary, filmed extensively and took over 1900 photographs, resources that she will draw from in formulating ideas that will create compelling and immersive stand-alone artwork for the Aerial/Sparks project.

ROV been deployed during aerial sparks Ailís Ní Ríain on board the RV Celtic Explorer for the SeaRover 3 ROV Survey during Aug 2019. Photographer Ailís Ní Ríain.She points out that her interest lies in storytelling rather than presenting abstract sound. The deepwater ROV used to search the seabed and collect biological and sediment samples proved a particular source of fascination: ‘Greek mythology wasn’t far from my mind, the idea that something that we remotely operate is sent down to the “underworld” and the experience he has down there.’ Ailís is keen to work with visuals as well as music in developing the piece: ‘I’m interested in what happens when you don’t give an audience what they’re expecting in terms of connecting music with visuals. It’s something I’ve done throughout my practice.’

Aerial/Sparks will be presented on the island of Inis Oírr in September 2020. For Ailís, creating work as part of the European Capital of Culture programme is an important consideration in itself: “What is it we want to say as part of Galway 2020, having brought all these artists out on surveys? What is it we actually want to say to the public about that? There’s a lot that I’ve witnessed on the survey about what it means to work at sea that I didn’t know about, that those who live and work on the land wouldn’t generally know about. I hope I can bring some of this experience to a broader audience.”Aerial Sparks Ailís Ní Ríain on board the RV Celtic Explorer for the SeaRover 3 ROV Survey during Aug 2019. Photographer Ailís Ní Ríain.

The SeaRover (Sensitive Ecosystem Assessment and ROV Exploration of Reef) project was commissioned and jointly funded by the Irish Government and the EU’s European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF). The cross government initiative was supported by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine, Department of Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht, and Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment as part of the Marine Institute’s implementation of the EMFF Marine Biodiversity scheme. Survey operations were led by the Marine Institute, INFOMAR and National Parks and Wildlife Service and supported by scientists from Geological Survey Ireland, NUI Galway, University of Plymouth, Norwegian Marine Institute and Aquafact.

For more information on Aerial/Sparks visit the Galway2020 website


Marine Institute
The Marine Institute is the state agency responsible for marine research, technology development and innovation in Ireland. The Marine Institute provides government, public agencies and the maritime industry with a range of scientific, advisory and economic development services that inform policy-making, regulation and the sustainable management and growth of Ireland's marine resources.

INFOMAR is a Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment (DCCAE) funded joint programme between the Geological Survey Ireland and the Marine Institute, surveying our unmapped marine territory and creating a range of integrated mapping products of the physical, chemical and biological features of the

Galway 2020
Galway will be the European Capital of Culture in 2020. As one of the largest cultural events in the world, Galway 2020 promises to deliver a year of thrilling, life-enhancing experiences through culture and the arts. The exciting pan-European programme for the year will see events in unexpected venues and locations throughout the region on the islands, in remote villages, in fields, mountains and on beaches. From food, music, dance, literature and visual arts to poetry, theatre, sport and largescale spectacle, everyone will get the opportunity to enjoy a fun-filled, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Created by artist Louise Manifold for Galway’s European Capital of Culture programme, Aerial/Sparks is an interdisciplinary art collaboration with the Marine Institute that explores radio connectivity and its relationship to ocean space. 

As part of the project, European artists are developing work based on their experience of time spent at sea with the Marine Institute’s research vessel RV Celtic Explorer, one of the few marine research vessels with sonic capabilities. The commissioned artists will create compelling stand-alone art works for radio broadcast in Ireland and Europe.

The collaboration has opened up exceptional opportunities to foster connections between art and science as the artists work side-by-side with the scientists who are undertaking the surveys.

In September 2020, Aerial/Sparks will present a series of broadcasting experiments that will inspire, arrest, and fascinate audiences on both a grand and intimate level. It will invite us to engage with wireless imagination to reconnect to our ocean wilderness - one of the last remaining unknowns.

Aerial/Sparks is funded by the Galway European Capital of Culture 2020 programme, the Arts Council of Ireland Project Awards and the Marine Institute.

Ailís Ní Ríain
Ailís Ní Ríain is an Irish contemporary classical composer who aims to produce work that challenges, provokes and engages. A regular collaborator with artists in other art-forms, her artistic interests are diverse and combined with an unwavering desire to develop her artistic practice with each new project or commission. In 2016, she was awarded the prestigious Paul Hamlyn Award for Composers.

Her music has been performed at London’s Purcell Room, The Royal Festival Hall, The National Concert Hall in Dublin, Carnegie Hall in New York, throughout Europe and in the USA, as well as being featured on BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 4, RTÉ Lyric FM and RTÉ Television. www.Ailí